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Pre-War Protest in Syria – Interview with Yahia Hakoum

Yahia Hakoum is a 32-year-old student from Damascus, Syria whom I met in Egypt in the winter of 2011 shortly after he fled his country. On March 15 of that year, he and nine other students had held the first protest Syria had seen since 1963. Yahia protested for the purpose of helping his fellow Syrians by calling for democracy and freedom. This protest kicked off Syria’s Arab Spring, which led to the civil war which rages on still today. Now, seven years into the war, I’ve talked to Yahia about the protest and its aftermath. His story is incredible and has never been told. Here is what he has to say.

How would you describe life in Syria before the war?

We should go back to 2000 if we want to understand the revolution. In July 2000 Syrians got up in the morning and saw the country go from President Hafez al-Assad to his son Bashar al-Assad.

I was 15 years old. At this moment the Syrian people didn’t understand so much what happened around us. There was an opening of political life, an opening of culture, an opening of media. But it wasn’t really an opening of the country; it was just the government saying we want there to be a noticeable difference between the father and the son.

Three years later, in 2003, the war in Iraq started. For Assad, this was an opportunity to return Syria to its previous situation but with even more authority for security and police. And as usual, there was no freedom of speech, there was no political freedom. So now we were back in the same situation as when his father was president.

We had a very bad economic situation and a very bad political situation. There were no prospects for us. The future was dark. I was part of Syria’s Baby Boom generation. 1982 the population of Syria was 9 million people. In 2000 it was 20 million. Now we had a lot of young people. These young people were more educated than the previous generations. There was a lot of difference in the intellectual level between our fathers and ourselves.

In Syria there was no political life. There was only one party. We had no freedom of speech. We could not talk about politics or economics the same way as in the United States or Europe. Corruption was everywhere. In Syria, though, television was playing at big role at this time, as well as the internet and, later, social media. We could clearly see that the U.S. was having elections and different presidents. The U.S. had George H.W. Bush and then Obama as president since Bashar Assad was elected, but in Syria we always had the same president. We arrived at the point where we really started to say why? Why? Can we have a democracy or not?

Protest in Syria - Yahia Hakoum

On March 15, 2011 you were one of the 10 people who held the first protests in Syria since 1963. This protest ignited the Arab Spring. Tell us all about that.

When the protests started in Tunisia, we watched all the time the TV and we were so happy for Tunisia. But we were asking ourselves is it possible to have the same in Syria?

Then on January 25, 2011 the protests began in Egypt So Egypt for us was like a big hope. If it’s possible in Egypt, it’s possible in Syria. We have more connection with Egypt than with Tunisia. Now there was no question about whether it’s possible in Syria or not. The question was when will we start in Syria.

In Syria we have a saying. The Syrian people can open their mouths only to eat and go to the dentist. We tried many times to do something. but always the police and security service, they were everywhere.

On February 25, 2011 at a souq in Damascus, there was a conflict between a policeman and a civilian man.Two minutes later, thousands of people arrived on the scene and began protesting against the police.

I thought since this is possible, bigger things are possible. The people are ready. I decided to protest because I wanted to change and bring about a better situation for Syria.

1963 was the last protest Syria had experienced. Now a platform on Facebook was started to get people interested in gathering for a major protest on March 15.

When I went to the demonstration, I didn’t know anyone. We were less than 10 persons. So few people showed up because they were afraid.

I was afraid too, but for me it was necessary. For me it was not a problem if I would be killed. It was a problem if we didn’t make a change. I was ready to go to the street and be killed to make a difference.

When we arrived at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on March 15, we found a lot of policemen and many security service members. We thought okay, we will not protest now.

We started to leave, and suddenly there was a problem between someone and a cameraman who was filming people. This young man told the cameraman, Look I don’t want to be filmed. Please delete my image. I didn’t give you authorization to film me. This cameraman told him, I will not delete anything. I’m from the security service.

That was it. We were only 10 people, but we had unity. We began shouting, Freedom for Syria. Our protest had begun. We marched through the streets and through Al-Hamidiyah Souq.Ten minutes after our protest began, five of us were arrested.

You were imprisoned several times because of this protest. Tell us about that.

After I was arrested on March 15, 2011, I was put into not a jail but a state security service center. It was a torture center. We were tortured to answer questions. Why did we demonstrate? Who gave us money to demonstrate? What is the meaning of freedom?

In the state security centers, you immediately lose your name. You are just a number. I was number 16. If someone wanted to know if I was alive or not, they will not find me because I don’t have a name.

I was tortured for 47 days. They put me in a German Chair. In this chair they can bend your body in any position they want. They bend you until you feel like your back will be broken. Then they kick you and beat you until you lose consciousness. When you are passed out, they put you in a cell until you get up, and then they will torture you again.

In 47 days, I lost 31 kilos. They let me out of the torture center so people would see me and be afraid.

One day after my first liberation, a different security service arrested me. They too tortured me for a few weeks, then set me free.

Three days after they released me, another security service arrested me. This time I was held for exactly 15 days.

The reason I was arrested three times is because the different security services don’t work together. If you’re arrested by one, other security services will arrest you later to find out why you were arrested by the previous ones.

They didn’t torture us for information. They just enjoyed the suffering. They wanted to punish us for what we’d done. That was so funny for them, to see us suffer.

Now it was too dangerous for you to remain in Syria. Tell us about leaving.

In the middle of May 2011 I moved into a monastery called Deir Mar Musa. The ambassador to Belgium had some activities planned at the monastery and came to visit.  The monastery’s priest, Father Paolo, explained my situation to the ambassador, that I probably wasn’t going to live for very long if I stayed in Syria. He asked her to help me. She agreed and said she would try to help me take refuge in Belgium.

Protest in Syria - Father Paolo
Father Paolo, who was kidnapped in Syria and is now missing

I stayed hidden at the monastery until November 2011. I had to ask for a humanitarian visa in Damascus, and then I was able to escape across the border into Lebanon.

I didn’t have any problem to leave my family and friends. I left because I wanted to do something for Syria. I left to prepare the future.

I arrived in Egypt and stayed for three months while people in Belgium were trying to get me into their country on a humanitarian visa. It began to look like that might not work, so another Belgian friend I had met at the monastery started working on a student visa for me.

Then my passport expired. Now, without a passport and, therefore, without a valid Egypt visa, I was in Egypt illegally. I couldn’t go to the Syrian embassy to try to get a new passport because with my history they would have arrested me and deported me back to Syria. I could do nothing but stay in place and wait.

The doors opened two weeks later. My friend succeeded in getting me a student visa for Belgium. Still, there was the problem of getting out of Egypt since I was now in Egypt illegally. This was fixed when the Belgian ambassador was able to get her government to write a letter to the Egyptian government, which gave me permission to leave the country without a problem. In February, I flew from Egypt to to Belgium, where they put a student visa in my expired Syria passport.

How do you feel about being one of the protesters who started the Arab Spring in Syria?

I didn’t think this would become so big. I was ready to demonstrate, so I decided to go demonstrate. I was waiting for other Syrians to join us, but I didn’t have in mind today we will go to demonstrate and we will have 1,000 or 1 million people. I didn’t have any idea what would happen. I was thinking maybe I will be killed in the beginning.

I don’t have a special feeling about it. For me it was something I needed to do. It was necessary to do this. If I didn’t do it, someone else would do it. So I didn’t wait for others to do what we should do. I decided to go and do what I should do. I feel I did what I should do, and if we go back to 2011 I will do the same.

Today we see the destruction. But also today, in a sense, the Syrian people are free. The pro-Assad people cannot say anything. But the opposition can say what they want. They can think what they want; they can say what they want. They can have freedom of speech. This was the revolution I wanted.

Tell us about your life today. What are you doing?

Today I’m a student. In the seven years since I left Syria, I’ve finished a Bachelor’s of International Relations from the University of Strasbourg in France. Now I’m studying for a Master’s in Political Science at the Université Catholique de Louvain , Belgium and I’m working on a second masters in Mediterranean and Oriental Studies at the University of Strasbourg.

I remember in Belgium they asked me what I want to do. I told them I have only the ability to speak. So I talk about Syria. I speak at conferences, I do interviews. I debate. I participate in think tanks. Actually, the situation in Syria is the center of my life.

Protest in Syria - Yahia Hakoum

I’m not attached to the land. I’m attached to the revolution, not to the country. The land, you can find the land everywhere. But you cannot find a revolution to defend everywhere.

In 2012 I lost my first brother. Then I lost in 2013 two brothers. In 2014 I lost my fourth brother. My three brothers who are still alive are refugees in Lebanon. My mother is too. My two sisters are still living in Syria. I don’t have much communication with any of them. I can’t get a visa to travel to Lebanon, and there isn’t a lot of communication possible with Syria anymore.

But now the revolution is my family. My family is the people who have the same ideals and the same principles. These people are everywhere in the world.

What do you think about international response or lack of response to the war in Syria?

If the world wanted to do something to help Syria, they should have done something in 2011. I don’t think the world can do anything now.

I think no one is interested about what happens in Syria. A lot of people don’t know where Syria is. We don’t see hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets to stop the war. We talk about it only when some country decides to engage in a military operation against Assad. People don’t want to know what happens in Syria because they have bad memories of Iraq and the war in Iraq. Because all the time we make comparisons between Syria and Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Afghanistan.

The only one who can do anything about the war in Syria is the US. But the US vision about the Middle East is not clear. The US airstrike on April 14, 2018 after Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack, this airstrike was not for the Syrian people. If you want to help the Syrian people, don’t let Bashar Assad kill at all. Assad kills them with many weapons, not just chemical weapons. I think the strike was just for everyone to remember the rules of the game. No one is allowed to use chemical weapons. But if Assad kills Syrians with other weapons there is no problem.

American presidents don’t want to make war. Russia feels frees to do what they want. They kill Syrians and do what they want. America doesn’t take action. The only action the US took is against Daesh (ISIS), which was a good action.

But the problem of Syrians was Assad and still is Assad. Without Russia and Iran, Assad would not still be in power today. So the problem of Syrians is not only Assad but also Russia and Iran.

Much of the media about Syria is not so clear. The big problem today is we say 100 people were killed in Syria. But the media doesn’t say who killed them. This is a problem. This is a big problem.

Protest in Syria - Yahia Hakoum speaking at podium

When the war is over, will you go back to Syria?

If Syria will not be a democratic country, no, never. Even now I will not go to a non-democratic country, even for tourism. I won’t show them support and help them financially by visiting their country. I feel the same about Syria. I will not go back if Syria will not be a democracy.

What Do You Want to Tell the World?

Democracy is so weak. And it is important for every country in world. Everyone should work to make a democratic situation real for everyone. If we don’t protect our democracy, we will lose it quickly. I would like for the people of every democratic country to protect it. If you lose democracy today, you will have a lot of trouble getting it back.

Interview by: Sabina Lohr

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Sabina Lohr is a freelance writer who shines a light on the cultures of the Middle East through non-fiction storytelling, interviews with local figures, and insightful articles. She has traveled extensively through the region for more than 15 years and has lived in Israel, Egypt and the U.A.E.

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